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Pressman Joins with Selma RB Hudson to Promote Better Understanding Between Groups

Not surprisingly, the experience has led to a better understanding from both groups of each other’s plight and history.
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July 26, 2023
The students from Pressman Academy and the students from the Selma Alabama school

Though they had met on Zoom a dozen times before, it was only in May 2023 that Los Angeles Pressman Academy students and Selma RB Hudson students finally met face-to-face. The eighth graders were picked to participate in this innovative collaboration to promote understanding and tolerance between the Jewish and African-American communities. 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff from Pressman Academy, a private Jewish day school for children from Pre-K to eighth grade, brought up the idea to the principal of RB Hudson, who agreed to collaborate. “Our two schools share the belief that educating students on the importance of coming together to know each other is a critical way to fight racism, antisemitism and intolerance,” wrote the school rabbi to the parents in a letter announcing the launch of the program.

At first, there was a little fear of the unknown from both sides, admitted Rabbi Tureff. After all, these are children coming together from different backgrounds and communities. “In general, the kids in Selma had never met anybody that was Jewish, and our kids, even though they know African-Americans and people that are not Jewish, they still live within their circle so to speak.” 

The questions that hovered on everyone’s mind were: Will it work? Will they actually connect?

The first few meetings were a little awkward; it took some time for both sides to feel comfortable and start a real conversation. 

The first few meetings were a little awkward; it took some time for both sides to feel comfortable and start a real conversation. “We had 13 students from our school and 10 from Selma. It was a small group of students that we picked after doing some interviews with them. We wanted to make sure that we had students that were really invested in this and wanted to make a social change. We started with Zoom meetings and had approximately 15 meetings until we actually met with them in Selma,” recalled Rabbi Tureff. 

“We learned a little bit about the history of both communities and social issues. We also did some social emotional learning in the sense of talking about experiences that they’ve had in their lives that have impacted them. One time, the students were asked to bring an object that is significant to them or their family and talk about it. One of the Jewish students brought a Kiddush cup and an African-American kid brought a baseball, and through their stories about those objects, they learned more about each other and about the civil rights history of the United States.” 

The program took months to get running. It required contacting both of the school districts and administration, presenting the program, and getting their approval. 

Although the Selma school was generally enthused about the program, at first, there was some trepidation. “This is one of the hubs of civil rights movements and they’ve had people come and promise things in the past and exploit the community, so there was a level of distrust at first,” Tureff said. “Like, who are these people and why are outsiders coming in here?”

The highlight of the program was a trip to Selma, Alabama. When the Pressman students finally traveled there, they brought along  Kenny Stoff, a documentarian who is also a Pressman parent. Stoff and his team documented the groundbreaking partnership, the first meeting of the children, and their visit to the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 where four young girls lost their lives.

“We spent the day in Selma and crossed the bridge with Mrs. Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who was a child when she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was there on bloody Sunday.” – Rabbi Chaim Tureff

“We spent the day in Selma and crossed the bridge with Mrs. Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who was a child when she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was there on bloody Sunday. We spent three days together, and each day we learned about different things and the kids started to warm up to each other and wanted to share about who they are and their community.”

The large Jewish community that once resided in Selma has shrunk to only three members. The historic temple Mishkan Israel (built in the late 1800s) serves as the only reminder of the Jewish life that once lived deep in the South. The visit to the synagogue was a first experience of its kind for the kids from RB Hudson.

Not surprisingly, the experience has led to a better understanding from both groups of each other’s plight and history. Rabbi Tureff is encouraged by the attention the program has received from other schools, and hopes they will adopt similar efforts to promote better understanding between two venerable communities.

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